The Gallagher Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course was about as perfect as an IndyCar Series race weekend could be for Graham Rahal.
Rahal led 36 of the 85 laps around the 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course in a valiant effort that came up short against Scott Dixon by 0.4779 seconds.
This performance followed Rahal setting the fastest time in Friday's early practice session and backing that up with his first pole position since June of 2017 at Detroit.
At the start of the race, Rahal lost the lead to Devlin DeFrancesco after the Canadian pulled off a sensational overtaking move to go from fifth to first by the time the field approached Turn 2.
After spending several laps under Caution following the first lap incident where Dixon spun around, Rahal moved around DeFrancesco to get the lead at the start of Lap 9 and gradually extended his lead to a little over three seconds before pitting for the first time at the end of Lap 24.
New leader Christian Lundgaard pitted soon after, cycling Dixon to the lead before making his first green flag pit stop at the end of Lap 32.
The strategic battle lines were now drawn. Rahal had to stop two more times under green, while Dixon had to stop only once.
Dixon blended out in 14th place, around 28 seconds behind Rahal. With a pit stop delta time between 40 to 42 seconds, Rahal had to gain a significant amount of time or else he would have to chase Dixon in the closing stages of the race.
But there was one more twist. Dixon started the race on the black sidewall primary compound tyres that Firestone provides. After running the mandatory minimum number of laps on the primaries at the start of the race under Caution, Dixon's crew put on the red sidewall alternate tyres for the rest of the race. The alternate tyres are softer so they provide more grip at the expense of tyre life, but at Indianapolis the alternate tyres had as much durability as the primaries.
Rahal ran two stints on the primary compound tyres in the middle of the race. Not because he wanted to, but because he had no choice.
After Friday's qualifying session, Rahal's crew discovered a blister on a left-front alternate compound tyre used in qualifying. Using that tyre in the race would be unsafe and could result in massive degradation, so Rahal had no choice but to run two stints on the primary compound instead.
“I knew that the two middle stints on black [tyres], I was going to have to drive the wheels off of it just to maintain my gap,” Rahal said at the post-race press conference.
“We were able to do that and actually pull a little bit more of a gap.
“Again, Dixie, through that middle stint, all the stints had reds, just blacks to reds, chasing down the best ever to do this, it's not an easy thing.
“At the end of the day, we have nothing to be ashamed of. I thought we laid it all on the line, did a great job as an organisation this weekend.
“To get a podium in a year like this obviously feels good. To get a win would have been better, but that's the way this goes.”
Rahal stopped at the end of Lap 48 and at the end of Lap 63. Dixon made his final stop at the end of Lap 59.
There were about seven seconds between Dixon and the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda with 22 laps to go.
However, lapped traffic hindered both leaders, with Ryan Hunter-Reay feeling Rahal's wrath after Rahal followed the 2014 Indianapolis 500 for nearly two laps, diminishing Rahal's late charge.
“I wasn't very pleased. Ryan is a very close friend so I'm not going to say much,” Rahal said in the post-race press conference.
“I didn't think it needed to be a lap-and-a-half or two laps for him to let me by. Pato [O'Ward] will tell you the same thing.
“When you're [a] second back of a car, it becomes a struggle, period. It's not easy.
“The lapped cars, they know that. They could make the job, particularly in the closing stages like that, slightly easier.
While Rahal did not believe that Hunter-Reay affected his charge against Dixon, a look at the leader lap summary shows how Rahal's ability to close on Dixon was briefly thwarted.
After lapping the 2012 IndyCar Series champion, Rahal set off after Dixon again but could not get close enough to make the pass for the win.
The closest IndyCar race finish ever at the IMS road course featured a generational talent facing off against a driver and team trying to remake themselves after a disastrous month of May on the oval at Indianapolis.
RLL Racing had to rework their entire programme after this year's Indianapolis 500, and the second IMS road course race was the next step on their way back toward the front of the field. Lundgaard helped showcase that by helping the team lock out the front row in qualifying.
Rahal knew what his car was capable of heading into race day, and it showed.
“I slept extremely good because I thought if you looked at the average lap times in warm-up, we looked really good,” Rahal said.
“I was thinking, it's never a guarantee, but this is a track that's fairly green, not a lot of Cautions, which we didn't get, and that starting where we started, if we did the right things, we had a damn good chance to win.”